A Baby Step Toward Wi-Fi Photos
EVERY now and then, someone combines two technologies into a single new product, and the result is a triumphant new category that changes the industry. Clock + radio. Cellphone + camera. Music player + hard drive.
But of all possible combinations these days, few are more screamingly obvious than wireless + camera. Already, millions of people snap photos with their cellphones, then gleefully e-mail them or post them on Web sites. But why should you be satisfied with the crummy, low-resolution, bleached-out photos from cellphones? Why shouldn't you be able to have the same kind of fun with really good photos, from really good cameras?
The time has finally come. Kodak announced its wireless EasyShare-One camera way back in January, but its release has been repeatedly delayed. What would have been the second wireless camera to hit the market, then, is now the first: the new Nikon P1, due in stores on Sept. 15. It's an iPod-size, eight-megapixel camera dressed in brushed-metal black, with a list price of $550. (A sister model, the P2, is a silver, 5.1-megapixel version that lists for $400. Online prices will be much lower once the cameras actually arrive in stores.)
The P1 is so small, you wouldn't guess that it contains a Wi-Fi transmitter for wireless networking, also known as AirPort or 802.11; only a small plastic window on one side (which permits the signals to exit the metal case) gives away the secret. Of course, Wi-Fi is useful only when you're within range of a wireless hot spot in, for example, a hotel lobby, coffee shop or airport lounge. A Wi-Fi camera doesn't let you roam nearly as freely as those cellphone cameras do.
BUT adding Wi-Fi to a digital camera ought to offer some juicy possibilities anyway. You could shoot pictures without even having a memory card; the camera would shunt them wirelessly to your waiting laptop as you worked. You could post pictures to your own Web site or a photo gallery site like Flickr.com while they're still hot off the sensor. Photojournalists could e-mail their prize-winners to their editors directly from the battlefield (assuming, of course, a wireless Starbucks is near the battlefield).
All this and more awaits the consumers who embrace the first fully functional wireless digital camera. Unfortunately, the Nikon P1 is not it.
Incredibly, the P1 can't connect to the Internet at all, even when its Wi-Fi signal-strength indicator has more bars than a federal prison. You can't e-mail your photos or post them to a Web site. You can't send photos from the camera to a cellphone or palmtop, or even to another P1.
So what good is it?
It turns out that the P1's wireless feature is good for a single trick only: sending pictures through the air to a wireless Mac or Windows computer that's under 100 feet away and running Nikon's photo management software. (That same setup lets you send photos straight to the printer. And if you buy Nikon's $50 wireless printer adapter, expected to arrive at the end of October, you can even send photos directly to the printer without the computer's involvement.)
Now, sending a photo wirelessly to a computer across the room is an O.K. trick. But honestly - is it such an improvement over plugging in the camera's U.S.B. cable the traditional way?
In one situation, yes. The P1 offers several wireless transfer modes. One transmits the most recent photos, another sends only photos you haven't already transferred, and so on. But one mode, called Shoot & Transfer, does something truly new: When you take a picture, the camera flings it through the air to your laptop, where it's safely stashed on the hard drive. Depending on the photo quality and resolution you've dialed up, this transfer can take from 15 seconds (best and biggest photos) to about one second (one megapixel or smaller).
Shoot & Transfer mode can be useful in a number of ways. It bypasses the camera's memory card completely, so it works if your card is full or even missing. In effect, your wireless laptop becomes the memory card - yes, the world's biggest and heaviest, but also the most capacious. With the laptop propped open in your backpack, you can trudge through the jungle - Amazon, urban or otherwise - freely snapping away, without ever worrying about running out of storage or damaging a flimsy memory card.
Shoot & Transfer also works well with the P1's time-lapse mode. You don't have to worry that you'll miss the butterfly's emergence from the cocoon because the memory card filled up.
But the best Shoot & Transfer feature of all is a true parlor trick. At a party, conference or any other social gathering, you can start up a slide show on your Mac or PC, complete with music. You can then walk around the room, snapping pictures of the guests or attendees. These photos join the slide show already in progress, automatically, in real time. It's digital-camera performance art. The best part is taking pictures of people's amazed faces as they catch on to what you're doing - and then those pictures become part of the show. Very meta.
As a compact camera, the P1 is loaded; Nikon correctly assumed that the kind of geek who'd be interested in a Wi-Fi camera probably would also appreciate manual control over ISO (light sensitivity), aperture size, shutter speed, exposure and other photographic controls. Yet the P1 also offers a lot of consumer-friendly features like scene presets, superb movies with sound (30 frames a second, the size of a TV screen) and Nikon's celebrated macro mode, which lets you take pictures only 1.6 inches away from the subject. The screen is clear, bright and huge - 2.5 inches diagonally - which Nikon hopes will soften the blow when you realize there's no optical eyepiece viewfinder.
The photos are very good. You wouldn't mistake them for magazine photos, but for a pocket-size consumer camera, they're above average. (You can see samples at nytimes.com/circuits.)
Nikon has a lot of work to do, though, with the wireless element. The camera can't connect to a computer or printer until you first install the software on your computer, connect the camera through its U.S.B. cable, walk through a series of setup screens, and name your connection (or, as Nikon calls it, your profile; the camera can memorize nine of them). This process is far more technical and jargon-laden than it needs to be; in fact, the whole ritual should be unnecessary. Why can't the P1 auto-detect and auto-join wireless networks the way palmtops and laptops can?
This setup business rules out yet another potential Wi-Fi high: fielding a request for your photos from somebody in an airport waiting lounge or business meeting. Instead of saying, "Heck, yeah, I'll just beam them over to you," you have to say: "Sure, I've got the Nikon CD right here. Let me just install this 230-megabyte software package onto your hard drive, connect the U.S.B. cable, create a profile, and hey, come back here!"
The P1 has a lot to recommend it as a digital camera. It's compact, it's loaded with features and the pictures are fine. Of course, you could say the same of several nearly identical Nikon models that lack wireless features but cost about $150 less.
But without the ability to connect to the Internet or to establish casual, on-the-fly connections to wireless networks, the P1 is a missed opportunity the size of Nova Scotia. The P1 may be a breakthrough in engineering, but for the moment, it only thumps the earth instead of shaking it.